Nathan Cleary has been cleared by the match review committee after he was placed on report for a lifting tackle in Saturday's 10-6 preliminary final win over Melbourne.
It was welcome news for coach Ivan Cleary, whose planning to avenge last year’s grand final loss had been so precise that the Panthers waited five months to exploit a Storm weakness exposed by the Roosters earlier this year
Cleary laid on a fourth-minute try that was a carbon copy of one scored by Roosters winger Matt Ikuvalu against the Storm in round six as Penrith stunned the premiers 10-6 but the star playmaker was placed on report for a lifting tackle on Kenny Bromwich.
Ivan had watched Roosters captain James Tedesco kick to the corner from dummy half under the Melbourne goalposts after noticing that Storm winger Josh Addo-Carr had come in-field and Nathan practiced the move last week.
The tactic paid off when Nathan jumped into dummy half and kicked across-field for an unmarked Stephen Crichton to score and the converted try proved decisive in an epic preliminary final at Suncorp Stadium.
“We stole it off the Roosters," Ivan said. "I was actually watching that game so I remembered it.
Match: Storm v Panthers
Finals Week 3 -
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
"Sometimes that sort of stuff works, sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes you don’t even use it. Today, to the boys' credit, they had the courage to do it and executed it well."
Fullback Dylan Edwards told Fox League: “We watched Tedesco and the Roosters do it to Fox [Addo-Carr]. We know Fox backs his speed, he likes to stay in pretty tight and Critter is pretty good in the air so if [the kick] got anywhere near him and the Fox was a bit infield we might be able to pull it off."
Panthers learn from Tedesco kick to Ikuvalu
Cleary's availability for the grand final against South Sydney was confirmed when the match review committee on Sunday announced he would not face a charge for a 21st-minute tackle after being placed on report by referee Gerard Sutton.
There are also concerns about the fitness of late-season recruit Tevita Pangai junior (knee) and Kiwi prop James Fisher-Harris, who carried a knee injury into the match that was clearly troubling him from the opening tackle.
“We aren’t a squad that is running around with no injuries but we will battle on," Cleary said. "It’s sort of the path we have taken the whole second half of the year really but I am not going to tell them that they can’t win."
The Panthers have taken the difficult route to the grand final after losing to the Rabbitohs in the qualifying final and needing to overcome Parramatta last weekend and the Storm on Saturday.
Melbourne lost prop Christian Welch and hooker Brandon Smith with head knocks in the early exchanges and committed uncharacteristic errors, with the premiers completing just 16 of 25 sets in the first half but only trailing 6-0.
Nathan Cleary on report for dangerous tackle on Bromwich
The happiest coach at half-time would have been South Sydney’s Wayne Bennett as he watched the Panthers and Storm engage in a war of attrition fitting of a grand final between the two top teams of the regular season.
Cleary had become caught up in verbal stoush with Bennett before Penrith's 16-10 loss two weeks ago over the way Penrith's forwards protected Nathan when he kicked but he plans to avoid another war of words ahead of the grand final.
“Wayne’s the best coach, probably of all time and certainly in my memory," Cleary said. "I’ll be doing what I am good at and staying in the background."
However, the critics may have underestimated the Rabbitohs, who lost just four matches to finish third.
Many had written Penrith off after their 16-10 loss to Souths in the first weekend of the finals but Melbourne only edged the minor premiership on for-and-against from the Panthers after both teams won 21 of their 24 regular season games.
Panthers co-captain Isaah Yeo said his side had also learned much about finals from last year’s premiership decider, in which they were ambushed by the Storm, who ended their 17-match winning streak after taking a 22-0 half-time lead.
Yeo gathered the Penrith players in an on-field huddle at full-time and reminded them of the task facing them next Sunday.
“Our aim for the whole season since we were back late December or early January was to win the comp," Yeo said. "It is extremely hard to get here but we understand that we are here to win the comp and there is still one more game to go."
Crichton scored the only try of the first half, although Storm interchange prop Nelson Asofa-Solomona crossed in the 22nd minute only for the try to be disallowed due to an obstruction by Dale Finucane on Panthers forward Scott Sorensen.
Cleary was placed on report in the 24th minute for a lifting tackle on Bromwich, who became the third Storm forward to leave the field after Welch and Smith as Melbourne took advantage of the free interchange for foul play.
Nathan Cleary on report for dangerous tackle on Bromwich
Only back-to-back trysaving tackles by Crichton on Justin Olam and Matt Burton on Hughes prevented Melbourne from scoring before Jarome Luai returned after passing a HIA to lay on a 43rd minute try for Brian To'o.
Star fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen eventually found a way through the Panthers' defence when he pounced on a Cameron Munster grubbe to score in the 64th minute but the Penrith managed to hold on to secure another grand final appearance.
Grant, Munster and Papenhuyzen combine to get the Storm right back in it
"A couple of years ago when we sat down and we really wanted to make this team a genuine top-four team or premiership threat, historically you can’t do it without really strong defence," Cleary said.
"It’s been the foundation of what we do. We spend a lot of time on it, we really value it and it has certainly helped us the last few weeks."